Michael Silverstein is an important thinker whose work spans anthropology, psychology, and linguistics. I’m deeply indebted to him intellectually, and benefitted immensely from his service on my dissertation committee. But it is hard explain the appeal to non-Silversteinians. Partially this is because of his difficult writing style (which has improved over time, I should say) and the slightly suspicious over-enthusiasm his devotees have for his work. Also, let’s be honest: Silverstein’s goal is to take things that many people already understand and redescribed them in a technical language that almost no-one understands. This is not an unheard-of approach. It is what linguistics do to grammar, after all. But it’s not to everyone’s fancy.
So what is the easiest thing of Silverstein’s that you can give to people to help them understand what is going on with him? I think the answer is his 1977 article “Language as a Part of Culture” in the edited volume Horizons of Anthropology. I think because it is old and not often taught it may have slipped out of people’s view. Which is a shame.
Of course it’s been a long time since I was at Chicago so I may be out of touch with the Latest Phase but I think this article covers most of the themes of Silverstein, and it does it in 12 pages in relatively straightforward prose. Relatively being the key word here.
Silverstein has written a lot and his thought is complex and has evolved over time. So this is hardly the last or best summary of it. But I think it might be a good place for a lot of people trying to find a way in it… or convincing/explaining to their own students what their former teacher is going on about. If you have thoughts or refutations let me know on twitter. I’m @r3x0r .